Berger on wine: Red wine blends problematic

Beware: Red wine blends can be overpriced, and not very good.|

Varietal wines, named after the primary grape in the bottle, usually are considered “better” than blended wines.

One reason is that consumers who get to know each of the most popular varietals’ basic aromas and tastes can make a choice about what style of wine he or she prefers.

For example, most chardonnays have a fruit-driven aroma, can smell like peaches, apples, or citrus, and are aged in oak so they offer a broad mid-palate and a richer finish than sauvignon blanc with its more herbal, tea-like notes.

Red wine lovers have a broader picture: the sage/bay leaf of cabernet (especially after it’s aged for a few years), zinfandel’s berries and bright fruit, and syrah’s earthy, rustic nature. Or compare merlot’s relative silkiness to petite syrah’s tannic palate-challenger.

Two decades ago, syrah was adopted here as a grape that potentially could make as exciting a red wine as cabernet. For one thing, it was prized in France’s Rhône Valley for making long-lived wines. It makes Australia’s greatest red wine (shiraz), and can also make tasty inexpensive wines.

It became widely planted in California, and many wineries got behind it. For the most part, though, consumers did not.

Even though winemakers tried to create an iconic image for it, consumers never adopted syrah widely, partly because it often was harvested too late and got so ripe that it became what its detractors called jam juice.

The growth of the grape in California coincided with another trend: the decline of consumers aging red wines in cellars. Newer consumers prefer to consume reds young, and syrah is best when aged. As a young red, it can be tannic and hard to like.

The failure of syrah to gain wide acceptance changed the entire red wine category. By a decade ago, the state was awash in the varietal and wineries soon were looking to get rid of syrah grapes any way they could.

That led directly to an explosion in the blended red category. Much of it had a lot of syrah. Today there are many bargain generic blends selling for $5 to $10. Many work well with Tuesday hamburgers, Wednesday pizza, and Sunday hot dogs. Many use syrah.

This wouldn’t be so bad if blended reds remained reasonably priced. But things got strange about 15 years ago. I began to see many red blends with prices I believed were misprints. Some amorphous blends appeared at prices as high as $50 and $60 a bottle. They’d have been OK at $15.

The only “benefit” of most expensive red blends was huge-ness – high alcohols, lots of oak, inky extract, no particular connection to a grape variety, and excessive ripeness (prunes, raisins, low acids).

The real problem is that buyers almost never got much information about them. Wineries often didn’t tell anyone what was in them.

I consider this one of the worst long-term trends in the American wine business – the move toward what is euphemistically called the super premium blend that wineries decline to explain, yet cost too much.

Wineries tried to get consumers to buy such blends based on the “fact” that they were more costly to make. The real story was that many such wines were made mainly to get rid of unwanted syrah.

Perhaps the most legitimate blended reds are Meritage wines from prestige regions. These are blends of any or all of the cabernet family (merlot, cabernet franc, etc.).

When prices for some generic blends began to rise, in the early 1990s, I began calling wineries to ask which grapes were used. I didn’t identify myself as a wine critic. In most cases with pricey wines, the person declined to state. The answers I got in order of most frequent:

1. “I don’t know.” (No offer to find out.)

2. “That’s a trade secret.”

3. “It’s a field blend.” (“What grapes are in that field?” “I don’t know.”)

4. “The winemaker isn’t here.”

Intentional obfuscation with blends was explained: “We allow our winemakers to do creative blending.” More likely it was a tactic designed to use inexpensive grapes (such as Alicante and carignan) and less pricey tactics (oak chips instead of barrels, red concentrates) to make a profitable wine to sell to unsophisticated wine buyers.

Fanciful names (including the meaningless “Reserve”), exotic labels (lots of gold, or silk-screened bottles), and packaging tactics (i.e., ultra-heavy bottles) try to give consumers confidence that the wine really is worth $40 or more when it really is ordinary.

My personal three rules of thumb for “California” red blends: I usually pass on older vintages; I rarely buy blends whose appellations are “California.” I never buy a blend if the label doesn’t say what grapes are in it.

Wine of the Week: 2015 Guigal Crozes-Hermitage ($21) – Winemaker Marcel Guigal of France’s Rhône Valley has been involved in 55 harvests. He recently said that 2015 was the finest of them all. So although his Crozes-Hermitage every year is an exemplary syrah, this vintage is simply remarkable. Plum, dark berries, earth spices and surprising intensity for a normally modest region, it has the flavors of a $30-$40 red wine, and has been seen discounted to the low $20s. It will be better in 3-6 more years, but I defy anyone tasting it now to wait. It’s delicious. Crozes-Hermitage rarely tastes this good!

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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